09 February 2011
The following is a response to a “performance of sorts” (her words) that Claudia Rankine gave on February 4, 2011, at the AWP conference in Washington, DC. I took some notes, but not as many as I’d have liked, so know that much of this is recollection and paraphrase. Thanks to Tisa Bryant for filling in some gaps in her smart and moving response.
The room felt unfillable. It was wider than it was long, chairs and chairs. I sat in an emptyish row near the back; I was alone. I had come, solely, to see Claudia Rankine read. I knew Rankine’s work, primarily, from reading and teaching Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. It’s through teaching it that I have come closer to the book, in part out of defending it to students who find it confusing and strange, and in part because teaching has required me to read it more than once, which, in most cases, is the way to learn to love a text you’ve started out simply admiring. What I love about this book is the way that Rankine presents the relationship of the individual to the social, or the political, as both inevitable and embodied. In her writing I see the individual, the physical body, and the world—three elements that are never separate, but can often feel separate. Though these three elements comprise, in short, what it is to be alive, it is remarkably difficult to represent their relationship fully in writing, and with clarity. Or perhaps I should say because this is what it means to be alive.
Like writing, it seems to me that AWP is as politicized as you want it to be, or as you let it be. As I sat in the back of the room, watching people mill and settle, I surmised that the majority of people in the audience were there to see Charles Wright, the second reader. I surmised this, I suppose, because I saw mostly white people, but it was a very large room, and I, also, am white, and was there to see Claudia Rankine. An introduction, and Rankine came up to the podium. She explained that she would begin with a reading of a poem by Tony Hoagland, then read a response that she wrote to the poem, and then his response to her response. She called it a performance of sorts.
The writer Nick Flynn came up and read Hoagland’s poem, titled “The Change.” The speaker in the poem recalls seeing a tennis match between “some tough little European blonde” and “that big black girl from Alabama.” The latter has “some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite.” Some people in the audience laughed at that line. I didn’t laugh. Although the speaker’s friend is rooting for the black player, the speaker “couldn’t help wanting/ the white girl to come out on top,/ because she was one of my kind, my tribe”. Later, the black player is again described as “so big/ and so black,” and “so unintimidated/ hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation/ down Abraham Lincoln’s throat”. People laughed at that line, too.
The audience clapped—many people in the audience clapped—and Rankine began her remarks. She said, “I don’t like to use the word ‘racist.’” She discussed how using that word immediately catapults the speaker, if black, into an “angry black person” stereotype. She described her first experience of reading the poem as one of not even anger or offense but of shock, bewilderment; as she read she asked, “What? What?” If the “what” is a rhetorical question, it can end there, in the silence that answers it. But Rankine mobilized the question: Where was she supposed to locate herself in relationship to this poem? Was she the “big, black girl”? She contacted Hoagland, a colleague of hers at the time, to ask him about the poem. He said, “This poem is for white people.” And next in my notes I have the line, which Rankine may or may not have said immediately following Hoagland’s statement: “Who let America in the room?” The conversation was now about much more than an individual, offending poem.
Because of course, as Rankine went on to say, the book that the poem was in did not appear on the shelf with a “For Whites Only” sticker. And thus it became a text that someone for whom it was not “intended” could pick up and read. And the words in it, by being words in the world (in America?) could point and barb in ways that, whether or not they surpassed their original intention, could cause real hurt. Rankine quoted Judith Butler, from a talk she saw Butler give about hate speech: “We suffer from the condition of being addressable.” Addressable—both an opening up and a shutting down, a label that obscures and one that creates the very possibility for communication. Rankine talked about the ways that hate language makes the recipient both invisible and hypervisible. Rankine, as I understand it, found herself both everywhere and nowhere in Hoagland’s poem.
Next, Rankine read Hoagland’s response to her remarks. (She said that he had only had two days to respond, though she didn’t explain why.) Hoagland wrote, “Dear Claudia.” He wrote that he felt Rankine was “naïve about American racism.” He said, essentially, that everyone in America is racist, that it’s something we learn and are taught everyday. He said that too many white poets are afraid to deal with this reality in their poems, that almost all poems about race come from a person of color’s point-of-view. He also suggested that it was facile for Rankine to assume that the speaker in the poem is the same as the poet. He called her remarks “underconsidered.” He made a list of declarative statements, which I wish I’d written down: “I am a racist. I am a misogynist. I am a man. I am a lover of women. I am a single mother.” And so on up and over the fraught and complex rainbow.
Rankine closed by reading one of her own poems. Because I don’t remember it well, I’ll quote Tisa Bryant’s report of the event: “Ms. Rankine ended with a poem that centered on the unfulfilled promise of America.”
Does it sound as if I’ve been holding my breath? I was. It was breathtaking—the degree of bravery and boldness it took for Rankine to present this performance to an audience that, I imagine, was mostly expecting a “regular” poetry reading. The fact that she explicitly addressed a member of the poetry elite; that she publicly allowed herself the vulnerability of admitting that she found the language in Hoagland’s poem to be hurtful. And that she did, again, in this talk what I so admired—loved—in DLMBL: she spoke of her grappling with Hoagland’s poem as both an individual and highly personal process that she experienced as a black woman, and located that experience in relation to the wider poetry community, to history, and to the contemporary political moment in the U.S.
In Hoagland’s response, he ignored all but the first layer—the personal—of Rankine’s response to his poem. Rankine said, These words are hurtful, and Hoagland said No they’re not, because I didn’t intend them to be. He said, Because you’re making it personal, I’m going to tell you that you’re naïve about American racism. He said, essentially, he is saying that he has more authority to speak about race than does Rankine. When Hoagland writes, in whoever’s voice, that the speaker wanted the white girl to win the tennis match, because “she was one of my kind, my tribe,” he is (he thinks) boldly addressing race as a white person; when Rankine discusses the questions that his language raised for her, he tells her that she’s missing the point.
But I want to turn, now, to my own experience of hearing Hoagland’s poem, and reflecting on Rankine’s remarks and his response to them. Because what’s interesting is that Rankine did not, in fact, mention the line quoted above (“my kind, my tribe”) though that is the line that stuck out most for me—that made me, as a white person with a commitment to anti-racism, feel most uncomfortable. Because, undoubtedly, there were and are white people in the U.S. who don’t want to see a black woman win at tennis. Who see that as representing a “change” that they are not, and might never be, ready for. I fear and resist being grouped in with the speaker in that poem. But in fact I can’t simply shun those lines or shut them out, because at that point in the poem Hoagland does, in fact, lay bare the enduring legacy of racism in this country—a legacy that I participate in simply by the fact of being a white person. “This poem is for white people.” Not a gift, but a provocation. In the context of this poem, that provocation is valuable, but it’s also dangerous—because it threatens to obscure, at least it threatened to obscure for me, the actual disrespect, and, yes, racism in the poem.
Hoagland may be aware of the legacy of racism in this country, but he is unaccountable to the power that that legacy has bequeathed to him. And one aspect of that power is the power to name (“We suffer from the condition of being addressable”). In “The Change,” when Hoagland employed an array of racist, exoticizing stereotypes to describe the black tennis player, he flaunted that power. He used language irresponsibly and stridently, without regard for where it fell. If there is another language, an alternate discourse, that can possibly ever serve as a challenge to the dominant mode of careless naming, it is one that illuminates, at every step how connected we all are to each other, and to the institutions in which we live with, in, and in spite of. That is the language that Claudia Rankine practices and one that I was so grateful and moved to hear.
Good news, Rankine's talk is actually now online! http://www.claudiarankine.com/